By Davlyn Luke, Chief Period Pro at USC School of Medicine Greenville
April is STI Awareness Month, and we want to highlight how Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) may (or may not) affect the menstrual cycle!
You may have heard that different STIs can result in changes to the color, consistency, and odor of vaginal discharge. Trichomonas infections, for example, can cause profuse thin discharge with a fishy smell. Other infections like HPV (human papillomavirus) don’t affect discharge but may cause genital warts or even cervical cancer years down the road.
But what you may not know is that most STIs have NO symptoms at all! Chlamydia, for instance, is one of the most common STIs and most often produces no symptoms – in males or females. Those that do experience symptoms may only have brief or mild ones such as a slight increase in discharge, vaginal discomfort and irritation, or symptoms that mimic a yeast infection.
The danger in not having symptoms or ignoring seemingly harmless ones is that untreated STIs often have lasting and harmful effects on the body. Untreated infections from gonorrhea and/or Chlamydia, for example, can progress to a disease called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) that can result in extreme abdominal pain, fever, and bleeding between periods. As the infection spreads through the uterus and fallopian tubes, it can cause scarring, which is a major cause of infertility.
While most STIs don’t have any symptoms, it’s always important to seek out medical attention for changes in discharge or irregular bleeding! If you’re having any sexual contact, STIs are always a possibility. Other red flags that may signal a potential STI may be:
- Pain/Burning with urination
- Vaginal itching
- Excessive vaginal discharge
- Change in discharge color from clear to yellow/green with or without vaginal odor
- Unusually heavy menstrual bleeding
- Bleeding between periods
- Pain with sex
- Lower Abdominal Pain
- Genital rash, sores, or warts- painful or not
If you believe that you have any of these symptoms or a combination of symptoms, reaching out to your care provider is critical! Knowing when symptoms started, how they’ve changed or worsened, and being honest about recent changes in sexual partners is essential information to provide to your doctor. Even if you are ultimately not diagnosed with an STI, sharing this information with your provider could help them find the cause for these symptoms and treat you.
STIs can happen when there is any intimate contact involving a mouth, vagina, penis, or anus, and some are even spread through skin to skin contact, even when “sex” doesn’t happen. It is also important to note that even when you don’t have any noticeable symptoms of infection, you could still be infected, and you could still be passing the infection on to your partner. Using barrier protection (like condoms) consistently and correctly can help prevent the spread of infection between partners. Equally as important is getting tested routinely for STIs anytime you have a new partner, and at least yearly even if you only have one. Regular testing can catch and treat any infections and also prevent them from causing lasting damage to a person’s reproductive and overall health.
Remember- knowledge is power! Getting tested is respecting yourself and your partner. The more you know about your body, about what is normal or not, the better you can take care of yourself. So be safe and get tested!